The National Restaurant Industry Show


Dayton, Ohio, raised Chef Min demonstrating cocktails and cuisine at the 2016 NRA show.


Every year around Memorial Day the Restaurant Industry gets together at Chicago’s McCormick Place to tout all the new trends and technology in Foodservice.       I’ve been lucky with my job to attend this the last four years. It’s an exciting and brave new world of what’s hip and hot for the next year.     For the past several years it’s been a lot about how to capture the Millenial market.   How can you make your operation relevant and enticing to this next generation of uber-finicky consumers.     Millenials demand fresh, local, healthy, and ‘curated’ – the new buzzword for hip.


Cool new products like cold brewed tea served with nitrogen are all over the place.     The nitro gives the coffee a creaminess without adding dairy for those who are lactose intolerant.   New crazy flavors like the strawberry cheesecake icy pop up for sample.


But of all the crazy new flavors and trends that are supposed to take off, guess what always stays the same?   It’s the popularity of just plain old comfort and street food.       Mexican and Japanese streetfood are trending hot in Chicago. Some of the hardest restaurants to get reservations with are chef-driven casual streetfood restaurants like Chef Matthias Merges’ (worked under Charlie Trotter) Yusho in Logan Square, and Rick Bayless’ Xoco (the Azetc word for Little Sister) in River North.   And these aren’t trends, these are foods grandmas and momas have been cookin for centuries – like churros, empanadas, and sticky buns.


The outside and inside of Yusho’s in Logan Square, in Chicago.

Nashville hot chicken is trending everywhere – including in large Quick Service Restaurants.   It’s as if it was  invented yesterday.   It’s only recently been discovered by the masses.   The African-American community of Nashville will tell you they’ve been making hot chicken in home kitchens since before the First World War! It’s no trend for them, it’s in their DNA.   You might call it a haplogroup.


There are marketeers and consultancies that make HUGE money telling foodservice operations where to invest in the next trend.   Bring Kale into your menu.   Peruvian is the next Mexican.     Put poached eggs on everything.   But the formula, as it turns out, is very simple.   Provide quality comfort food that people know and love at a fair value, provide great service and you’ll make it.


It’s all about legacy and bringing us back.    Food memories are some of the strongest memories we have.     Playing those hear strings are what smart foodservice operators are channelling into.   You can see this ‘back to the start’ mentality with beverage companies.   Pepsi has released a new line called 1893, harkening back to their origination. They are introducing a new line of soft drinks with ‘a bold combination of kola nut, real sugar, and sparkling water” with flavors like Original Juniper, Mint Julep, and Ginger.       These are designed to bring legacy, or hip, pre-Prohibition, into the expensive, ‘curated cocktails’ scene that Millenials are eating up like penny candy.


So the lesson to foodservice operators is don’t look too far out of your reginonal comfort foods for success.      You don’t need crazy trends to keep it real and relevant.    Cincinnati chili is 94 years old and has hardly modified its platform since.    Pretty simple for a $250 million industry in only one smalll metro area.     Big time restauranteurs take notice!


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